Kakamega farmers scoop top global awards for growing wild tree

The domestication by farmers living near Kakamega forest of a wild plant that cures hangovers and relieves cold symptoms has transformed the incomes and lives of 460 western Kenyan families, and now drawn international awards as a model of forest preservation fuelling human development.

With nearly half a million pots of the medicinal Naturub® having now been sold nation-wide, the project has drawn together scientists, marketers, business experts and farmers, around a self-help group that was already in action, fuelling it to the point of now advanced business training, and full agro-processing.

Historically, communities surrounding Kakamega relied on the forest for their livelihoods through logging and grazing, until the government’s directive banning logging from Kenyan forests, at which point the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), an international scientific research institute headquartered in Nairobi, came to their rescue.

Under ICIPE’s ambitious bioprospecting programme, which facilitates farmers in cultivating and commercializing products from nature such as medicinal plants, insect repellents and botanical pest-control products, Muliru Farmers Conservation group, the umbrella self help group of farmers living beside Kakamega forest, has become a supplier of natural medicinal products.

ICIPE in partnership with the University of Nairobi, Kenya Wildlife Service, ICRAF and KEFRI, started the project with the aim of easing pressure on the forest, which has in recent years suffered haphazard, excessive, wasteful and unsustainable harvesting of its resources.

The Muliru Farmers Conservation Group provided a good entry point for the activities envisioned by ICIPE and partners. “Our interest in this project was that it would act as a model for conservation of bio diversity while improving the livelihoods of the people living in the forests. It is also one of the ways of enabling indigenous traditional knowledge to be useful to humankind before [that knowledge] is entirely lost,” said Dr. Wilber Lwande, Head of BioProspecting at ICIPE.

The key has been the on-farm cultivation of Ocimum kilimandscharicum, an indigenous medicinal herb of the mint family, known locally as Mkombela, which was used traditionally to treat colds and flu, coughs, sore eyes, diarrhea, abdominal pains and measles, while curing hangovers. Farmers harvest mkombela plant by cutting the stems of the plants at the base.

They then pluck the leaves from the stems, pack the leaves in gunny bags and transport them to the processing facility.Farmers are paid Sh10 per kilo for the wet leaves, which are then dried for processing.

On average, a farmer makes Sh35,000-Sh40,000 cultivating the plant on a small plot, ranging from an eighth of an acre to half an acre, which is three times the income previously obtained from maize cultivation.

Over 770 tons of on-farm cultivated Ocinum kilimandscharicum has been supplied by the community since the venture began, producing over 700kgs of essential oil. Unemployed youth in the area have been employed by the conservation group in the factory processing and distilling.

Farmers can harvest the leaves three times a year as optimal sprouting takes 3 months. They also don’t need to invest in fertilizers to boost output of the plant; it flourishes naturally in the local weather.

According to ICIPE, bioprospecting has altogether benefitted 30,000 families in Western and Central Kenya since it was started in early 2000 – both directly through cultivation and processing, and indirectly through marketing the products.

“The project has tremendously raised the living standards of the community members. Those who previously lived in grass-thatched houses now have better homes; and awareness about environmental conservation has improved and many local people are seeking computer and business management skills in efforts to improve production,” says James Ligare a farmer with Muliru Farmers conservation group.

Ligare is currently being trained by ICIPE on how to manage the overall operation of the enterprise once the institutions pull out and leave it entirely to the farmers.

Using the essential oils from the leaves, ICIPE together with the University of Nairobi, has developed a commercially branded range of products known as Naturub®, which includes a balm and an ointment. With assistance from ICIPE and funding from UNDP/GEF-Small Grants Programme, the Ford Foundation, the Swiss-based BioVision Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, the farmers have been able to put up a hydro-distillation facility in their village and master the technology of extracting essential oils from the leaves of the plant.

The products from ocimum kilimandscharicum were the first herbal products to be approved by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya, the Kenya Industrial Property Institute and the Kenya Bureau of Standards, and the self help group has since sold more than 400,000 pieces of Naturub as 2-packs each of 4 grammes retailing at Sh60, and presented as a cold cure.

“The problem is that we are competing with established companies with aggressive marketing strategies and even though our products are of superior quality since every ingredient is natural, we lack the mechanisms to invest in extensive marketing strategies to popularize the product,” said Ligare.

The group’s efforts have nonetheless been internationally recognized this year. In September, the group beat 300 other nominees from 66 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean to win the prestigious Global Equator Award, for their community efforts towards biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction, at a colourful ceremony in New York attended by nine heads of state, and dignitaries.

The award went unreported in Kenya.

In November, the community was awarded the Seed Award by UNEP, UNDP and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, for being the most promising, innovative and locally led start-up of social and environmental entrepreneurs in a developing or emerging economy.

ICIPE is also actively involved in Mombasa and Tanga in Tanzania, in projects built to be managed by farmers themselves. “We will only be giving them scientific help, but as far as managing the plants and processing them is concerned, they now have the technical knowhow and we would like them to now fully own it,” says Mr. Frederick Nduguli ,a consultant on the applied bioprospecting and conservation programme at ICIPE.

Written by Bob Koigi for Farmbizafrica